Lessons from Finland

Written by: HTU | Published:

Finnish education is considered the best in the world. Pete Henshaw looks at the five key ideals that have guided Finland’s schools

No inspection regime, no league tables, no standardised national tests and a system that prizes equity as highly as achievement.

The secrets to Finland’s success as a world leader in education were laid bare this week, along with some notable differences between the Finnish approach and England’s education policy.

During a lecture at the House of Commons last month, Dr Pasi Sahlberg, director general at the Centre for International Mobility and Co-operation in Helsinki, and author of the book Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?, listed five lessons for English education. They were:

• More collaboration, less competition.

• More personalisation, less standardisation.

• More responsibility and trust, less accountability and control.

• More pedagogy, less technology.

• More professionalism, less bureaucracy.

Finland has been heralded as one of the world’s most successful education systems ever since the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) began publishing international league tables more than a decade ago.

Dr Sahlberg delivered a damning critique of what he called GERM – the “global education reform movement” – which he said is spreading “like a virus” to many OECD countries via ministers and consultants.

GERM is based, he said, on competition, “where we insist that schools and pupils compete against one another”; the idea that more school choice will improve the system; accountability via national testing; and standardisation – all ideals that Finland has rejected.

He argued instead that collaboration, equity of access to comprehensive education, a personalised curriculum, and trust-based professionalism had been the key to Finnish success.

Dr Sahlberg said a core reason for Finland’s top ranking was equity – with fair access to comprehensive schools for all students.

Finnish students attend nine-year comprehensive schools from the age of seven – private and grammar schools were abolished more than 30 years ago. At 16, they have the choice to remain on in state-funded education, taking either an academic or vocational route.

Dr Sahlberg said: “We had huge gaps in equity. During the last 40 years (we have) been focused on improving equity – not achievement or results.

“Other systems around the world try to enhance the quality of education; they introduce curriculum reforms, improve assessment, have a focus on leadership, training teachers and investing in ICT and other areas. But we have been making sure that resources have been allocated so that they improve equity – equity of access to schools for everybody.

“We cannot achieve this dream of having an equal education for everybody if we continue to have private schools. Finnish law states that it is illegal to charge tuition fees.”

OECD statistics show that between-school variation is very low in Finland, meaning parents do not talk about school choice and league tables are redundant.

Asked about academies, Dr Sahlberg dismissed the trend for increased school choice, including the English academy system, free schools in Sweden and England, and the American charter schools.

He said: “When you have increasing number of academies – and my fear is the same with the Swedish free school movement – with this type of system you are probably having less collaboration between schools. When I look at charter schools in the US and for the schools in Sweden, they really do not care about anybody else, let alone that they would share that practice with other schools.”

Dr Sahlberg stressed the importance of special education. He said that in the Finnish cohort due to graduate this spring, 52 per cent will have been in full or part-time special education support. It is so common, the stigma is removed and families use the services. Early intervention is a priority.

“Less is more” was also a key theme. At the equivalent of key stage 3, Finnish teachers teach 60 minutes less a day than their English counterparts and 120 minutes less than in America.

Dr Sahlberg said: “(They) are working with their school curriculum – the school has to design the entire curriculum – they are working on student assessment because we do not have standardised national testing, they are in charge of school development and school welfare issues. They need to have the time to do these things.”

Finnish students spend less time in the classroom too, and have less homework than in many other countries. Dr Sahlberg warned that international evidence suggests “the more time children spend in a school the less well they achieve”.

He also said that the Finnish system of personalisation saw every school developing its own curriculum and meant that teachers assessed students against their own abilities instead of a national average. There are no SATs.

Teacher professionalism is crucial, Dr Sahlberg added. Finland, he said, had been able to select the best candidates for teacher training for some years. For example, the University of Helsinki this year saw 2,300 applications for 120 training places. The Master’s-level courses can last up to six years. Dr Sahlberg added: “We have tough quality of control at entry and then we do not need to worry about the rest – we have no inspection of schools because they know what to do.”

He said the idea of paying teachers based on performance, something backed by education secretary Michael Gove to drive up teacher quality, had not been “seriously considered” in Finland.

When asked which single aspect of England’s system he would change overnight, Dr Sahlberg concluded: “Your children go to school when they are five and you’re already testing them from an early age. Is there another way we can ease up the pressure that many children have – is there any way we can increase the time for play?”

For more on the work of Dr Sahlberg, visit www.finnishlessons.com.

• Pete Henshaw is the editor of Headteacher Update.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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